Age

Age

We have the wrong idea about age. We think too much in terms of bodily change and the passage of objective time. We can certainly talk about bodily age and temporal age, but we also need to recognize mental age—the age of a person’s mind. This may not correlate closely with the other two types of age: someone might be young psychologically but old physically and temporally, and vice versa. In particular, the growth and development of the body may not track the maturity of the mind. We tend to be fixated on the transition from pre-reproductive human to reproductive human—the period we call “adolescence”. This is a period of rapid growth and sexual maturation: the organism becomes capable of reproducing itself. This biologically important transition occurs close on the heels of what we call childhood: the mind of the child is not far behind, gradually transforming, as the body make a sudden leap to reproductive maturity (this is true for animals as well as humans). Reproductive age is not psychological age. In principle, a baby could attain reproductive maturity, with the mind of a baby. This kind of age is not indicative of the age of the human (or animal) mind: the mind lags behind the body as time moves on. Obviously, too, the mere passage of time has nothing essential to do with the mental age of the organism: you are not mentally old just by living a long time, or mentally young by living a short time. The aging of the mind (its evolution or maturation) is an autonomous process, largely independent of the body and objective time. It is less publicly accessible, less measurable, less evident to the senses: we see the body age, we experience the passage of time, but we don’t see or experience the aging of the mind. That is something hidden. Yet it happens: people do change psychologically over the years, especially in the early years of life. I would say, roughly, that the child is more adult than we tend to think, and the adult is more childlike than we tend to think: the physical facts belie the psychological facts. Being big and hairy is not the same as mental maturity. But our language and senses don’t register the dynamics of psychological aging; they give us a misleading picture of true psychological aging. What does it consist in exactly? What concepts capture it most accurately? What are its characteristic phases and triggers?

Psychologists have tried to map the processes of childhood mental development (Freud, Piaget), articulating stages and laws, but I am concerned with the whole life-cycle. Still, they were right to stress the purely mental aspects of the maturation process. A theme that appears in much thinking about child development is decentering: the child comes to see itself as one being among many, thus achieving a degree of objectivity. It is a kind of epistemic maturing—from subjective (egocentric) to objective (impartial). Clearly, this has a lot to do with moral development (see Kohlberg). I prefer to say that psychological aging has everything to do with knowledge: a person’s psychological age is a matter of his or her state of knowledge. How much knowledge does the individual possess? What kind of knowledge? How was the knowledge acquired? How well founded is it? These are the kinds of questions that determine an individual’s mental age. It is generally supposed that (temporally) older people know more than younger people, and that is surely statistically correct; I am saying that this is constitutive of mental age. I would hazard the conjecture that people reach mental maturity around the age of forty (certainly not sooner), long after reaching the age of sexual maturity; up to that point they are still mental children (of varying stages of maturation). We can call this “cognitive age”: a given individual might be sexually immature, temporally immature, and cognitively mature—or other combinations. A common type is well past the age of sexual maturity, and far on in years, and yet childlike cognitively (with “the mind of a child”). In principle, it would be possible to track the stages that precede the age of cognitive maturity, spelling out their internal features, their triggers and pathologies: that would be the task of the whole-life developmental psychologist. We know very little about this as things stand, save anecdotally, but empirical work could be undertaken to establish the natural history of the individual mind—the distinctive phases, underlying principles, and individual variations. We might even be able to measure cognitive maturity by suitable tests (analogous to IQ tests). Each of us may be assigned three ages: years since birth, bodily development, and cognitive state. Someone might be 70 calendar years old, 50 in bodily years, and 80 in cognitive years, i.e., pretty old in temporal terms, middle aged in terms of bodily condition, and advanced in mental terms. Age would be regarded in a more fine-grained and nuanced manner than it currently is. This would be fairer in all sorts of ways (it would make ageism a lot more difficult to sustain).

Let me put it intuitively and crudely: how old you are is determined by how much you know about the ways of the world. The idea is not that age is a matter of your amount of trivia knowledge, so that Jeopardy champions have the highest mental age. It’s about how much you know of relevance to your environment and life-style, including your social world. It will certainly include the capacity for sound judgment and careful thought (both essential even in jungle-dwelling tribes). This is not an elitist proposal in the pejorative sense. Knowledge can be practical as well as theoretical or book-learned. I also mean to include emotional maturity: this too will have a knowledge component. Mature emotions are regulated by rational thought, information, and openness to correction. So, a person cannot be fully mentally mature just by knowing a lot of facts while being emotionally juvenile; emotional age also matters to mental age. In fact, psychological maturity is largely about emotional maturity; the emotional and the cognitive are intimately connected. The point is that the mind grows and matures, reaching a sort of steady state (analogous to adult height); and this needs to be recognized in our thinking about aging. We should not be focused exclusively on merely corporeal or calendar considerations; indeed, mental age is really the central fact of aging. We should be as obsessed with it as we are with our calendar age or bodily age—more so. Have I reached mental maturity yet? Am I getting more juvenile mentally? How do I keep myself young in mind? Are there areas in which I am still mentally immature, or callow, or childish? Do I know too little about things that really matter? Am I sometimes hopelessly puerile in my judgments and opinions?[1]

[1] People look in the mirror to see how they have aged (I include children growing up as well as more senior people), but there is no mirror for mental age. We cannot immediately ascertain the impact of years on our mental age. But memory affords a way to gauge the effects of time on the mind and its propensities: how did I used to think and feel about things? And how does my mind differ from the minds of older and younger people? We are not completely closed off from knowledge of our mental age.

Share
2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    In trading, time is not itself relevant as much as the actual or potential total realised volatility (actually, variance). This is typically represented as a product of time (fraction of a year, say) and an annualised volatility term. This is similar in spirit to what you are suggesting, except for mind you are putting forward knowledge as that which should be measured.

    Reply
  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    There is a subtle distinction between a measure of how much knowledge one has now (“age” as a state of a clock) vs the amount of knowledge accrued (“age” as a measure of duration). The latter concept could be generalised to other measures (the amount of fun or adventure experienced, meaningful time spent with family and friends, or good deeds undertaken, as possible measures of how full one’s life has been to date), while it isn’t so clear the former can be.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.